Storms in Texas, heat waves in California and 'vulnerable' utilities

Feb 18, 2021 Travel News

Storms in Texas, heat waves in California and ‘vulnerable’ utilities

In California, wildfires and heat waves in recent years have forced utilities to shut off power to millions of homes and businesses. Now, Texas is learning that deadly winter storms and severe cold can do the same.

The nation’s two largest states have taken very different approaches to managing their energy needs – Texas has aggressively deregulated, letting the free market thrive, while California has adopted environmental regulations. Yet both states face the same disturbing reality: They can be woefully ill-prepared for the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters caused by climate change.

Power outages in Texas and California have revealed that power plants can be strained and taken offline by the kind of extremely cold and hot weather that climatologists say will become more common as greenhouse gases grow. ‘accumulate in the atmosphere.

The problems in Texas and California highlight the challenge the Biden administration will face in upgrading the power system to run entirely on wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and other zero-emission technology here 2035 – a goal President Biden set for himself in the 2020 campaign.

The federal government and energy companies may have to spend trillions of dollars to bolster power grids against the threat posed by climate change and move away from the fossil fuels responsible for global warming in the first place. These are not new ideas. Researchers have long warned that U.S. power grids, which are managed regionally, will come under increasing pressure and require major upgrades.

“We really need to change our paradigm, especially utilities, because they are becoming much more vulnerable to disasters,” said Najmedin Meshkati, professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, of the power outages in Texas. and California. “They always have to literally think of the worst case scenario, because the worst case is going to happen.”

Mr Meshkati, who has served on committees at national academies that have studied BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, said Mr Biden should set up a commission to investigate the grid outages in Texas and in California and recommend changes.

But it’s unclear what Mr. Biden will be able to accomplish, given the federal government’s limited role in overseeing public services, which are primarily regulated at the state level. He might not even be able to muster a majority in Congress to push forward an ambitious climate plan given Democrats’ tight grip on the Senate and strong opposition by most Republicans to policies to cut gas emissions. Greenhouse effect.

In California and Texas, conservatives blamed renewables for power cuts, even as energy experts, grid managers and utility executives said solar and wind farm outages played a role less important than poor planning and problems with the supply of natural gas and other energy sources.

The fact that Texas and California have been hit the hardest makes it clear that simplistic ideological explanations are often wrong. Texas, for example, has relied on market forces to balance its power grid. If there is not enough supply, the price of electricity in its wholesale market rises, which aims to encourage businesses to generate more electricity and businesses and consumers to use less. California also has an electricity market, but it requires power producers to maintain excess capacity that can be called upon in an emergency. Yet both systems failed under extreme conditions.

The common theme across the two states is that many traditional power plants are much more sensitive to temperature changes than the utility industry has recognized, said Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center.

“Coal-fired power plants and gas plants have problems with heat and cold,” said Apt, who is also a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Last August, several natural gas-fired power plants stopped producing electricity as Californians turned on air conditioners because plant equipment malfunctioned in hot weather. Other plants were down for maintenance, which many experts found odd given that demand for electricity typically peaks in late summer.

Running out of power, as demand peaked, the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s grid, ordered utilities to carry out power outages until the system reaches equilibrium. The order came so abruptly that Gov. Gavin Newsom complained that the power outages “occurred without prior warning or sufficient preparation time.”

Separately, California utilities have also cut power to hundreds of thousands of customers over the past two years to prevent power lines and other equipment from starting fires on dry and windy days.

In Texas this week, many natural gas plants were shut down or had to downsize because their equipment froze. Others could not produce as much energy as they normally do because the pipelines that deliver gas to them were frozen or not receiving enough gas from the Permian Basin fields of West Texas and New Brunswick. Mexico, where operations were also hampered by sub-zero temperatures. .

The electricity industry generally looks at average annual temperatures rather than seasonal temperatures. Changing the distribution of energy sources according to seasonal temperatures could help avoid power shortages. For example, nuclear power plants generally perform well in the cold but become vulnerable to heat due to the need for cooling water, Apt said.

The extreme temperatures should not have surprised the utilities and the network operators. Historical weather data has shown a marked increase in very hot summer days over the past decades.

In addition, Mr. Apt pointed out that the United States has experienced five major cold snaps since 2011, including the polar vortex in 2014 which led to the shutdown of nearly a quarter of the electricity available on the most the country’s major energy market, PJM, which serves the mid-Atlantic region. In some factories, the coal mounds became unusable because they froze.

“These types of cold snaps aren’t particularly rare,” Apt said. “A Black Swan event – an unknown stranger – this was not the case.”

Some climatologists believe that the warming of the Arctic may be responsible for harsher winter storms even as winters generally become milder.

The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, acknowledged that the industry faces many challenges, but stressed that much of its work is closely overseen by state and federal authorities.

“It is important to stress that we are the most regulated industry in the country and the way we serve customers is determined by the various rules and regulations set by federal and state regulators,” said Brian Reil, Door – group speech.

Pedro J. Pizarro, chairman and chief executive officer of Edison International, the parent company of California’s second-largest investor-owned utility, said no Texas or California utility has anticipated the types of extreme weather conditions that hit both states.

“Let me start here and recognize that the Texas event and the California event are very good examples that we are all living with with climate change,” Pizarro said. “Power grid systems must be able to cope with the new normal.”

Mr Pizarro said his company is adding battery storage, which can help when demand increases in extreme weather. California has also asked its utilities to install more batteries, which typically deliver electricity faster than large power plants, although they only do so for a few hours at a time.

Lawmakers, residents and others have started demanding a clear account of what went wrong this week, as they did in California last summer, and how another multi-day electrical crisis can be avoided.

Some of them criticized the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs the state’s grid, for not doing more to force plants to prepare for freezing temperatures. To avoid more such blackouts, the board could learn from colder climate states where power plants and other are wintered with insulation and heaters.

Some potential fixes would be useful in Texas and California. Neither state appears to have sufficient capacity to bridge the gap between supply and demand in extreme weather conditions. They may need to invest more in batteries and transmission lines to supply electricity to other states. Texas has always chosen not to have extensive ties with other states, to avoid federal regulation.

States could also require some natural gas plants to be ready to start quickly in an emergency with enough gas stored on-site to operate for several days to avoid reliance on pipelines. This addiction can be fatal, as Texas learned this week.

Some changes are already underway. In California, regulators had authorized the shutdown of some natural gas plants, although it was clear that the gap between supply and demand was narrow on the hottest summer days and late after. – midday when the sun goes down and the solar panels stop producing electricity. After the August power outages, the California Public Utilities Commission delayed the shutdown of several natural gas power plants.

Dan Reicher, founding director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, said utilities, grid operators and regulators need to become much better at planning for storms, heat waves and cold. “If we cannot reconcile our action with the American network, we will not solve the climate crisis.”